Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Serapion
Images left to right: Saint Serapion prior to restoration; an x-radiograph image; Saint Serapion post-restoration
In 2015 the Wadsworth Atheneum began an extensive restoration treatment of Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Serapion (1628), funded by an award from The Executive Committee of The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) and with additional support from The Hand Center, Hartford, Connecticut. The collaborative, two-year conservation process was led by Wadsworth Atheneum Chief Conservator Ulrich Birkmaier in consultation with an international team of experts, including art historians, conservators, a hand surgeon, and an artist.
Saint Serapion, acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1951, is a key work in the museum’s celebrated collection of 17th century paintings. Painted in the visually dramatic Tenebrist tradition for the monastery of the Shod Mercedarians in Seville, Saint Serapion is a monumental work that contemplates themes of sacrifice, death and redemption, and is considered one of Zurbarán’s masterpieces.
The conservation treatment addressed a discolored surface coating casting a haze over the original artwork, muting its details and flattening its multidimensionality. Conservators removed the yellowed varnish and old discolored restorations, unveiling various shades of white and strengthening contrasts between light and shadow to once again convey the intense spirituality Zurbarán intended.
X-radiographs confirmed that the painting had also suffered considerable paint losses (common in centuries-old paintings and often caused by environmental conditions) in the area of Saint Serapion’s proper right hand. All that remained was a faintly visible thumb and traces of the saint’s original index and middle fingers. With those fragments plus expert historical, artistic and medical advice as guide, the conservation team reconstructed Saint Serapion’s lost hand using stable yet reversible pigments.
With its restoration now complete, this 17th century masterpiece now fittingly hangs in the museum’s newly renovated and reinstalled Morgan Memorial building. Visitors can find Saint Serapion in the early Baroque gallery alongside other masterworks by artists including Caravaggio, Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi, Jusepe de Ribera, Salvator Rosa, and Bernardo Strozzi.
Watch the museum’s video documenting the early phases of the restoration process, presented at TEFAF Maastricht March 2015: